NATO’s Gamble in Kosovo

An excellent analysis written by Maj. Dag HenriksenNorwegian Air Force Lt. Col. Dag Henriksen at the Norwegian Air Force Acadamy has written the excellent analysis Nato’s Gamble: Combining Diplomacy and Airpower in the Kosovo Crisis, 1998-1999, a book published in 2007. Henriksen has interviews with key officers, politicians and diplomats making the decisions about NATO’s war against Yugoslavia.

With the accounts from first hand sources, Henriksen tells the story how NATO went to war without having a clear political goal with the bombing and how the war rhetoric forced NATO into a corner where they had no other choice but to go to war in order to save face; he tells the story how NATO became an ally of the UÇK and how they became their surrogate army, and he tells the story how small NATO countries had little influence on the events.

When I talked to former Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik in February this year, he claimed that his government was well informed about the different phases in the war, but these statements seems strange confronted with the documentation Henriksen provides. He writes for instance on page 25:

When I asked the Norwegian minister of defense, Eldbjørg Løwer, how she perceived political control regarding the transition from one phase to another, she said, “It was not evident when one moved from one phase to another. It was clear that the dynamics of events once the campaign started made it difficult to distinguish the phases. Norwegian foreign minister Knut Vollebæk confirmed the perception of the defense minister: The transition from one phase to another was not entirely clear – the dynamics of war influenced the process.  

If you are interested in an inside view how NATO thought before they went to war, you should get hold of this book. Below you can read my selection of quotes from the book, very interesting and revealing information.

Nato’s Gamble,  quotes

Introduction IX: When the most powerful military alliance in history entered its first war, no one in the political leadership of NATO had received any political guidance or developed any strategy for what the situation in Kosovo should be like after the war.

3. It was thought by key individuals in Washington and many of the political leaders in NATO that this would be achieved in as little as two to four days.

4. In a speech at the Royal Norwegian Air Force Academy after the war, the man in charge of the air campaign, Lt. Gen. Michael C. Short asserted: “The phrase I’ve heard many times was ‘NATO was going to demonstrate resolve.’ Your Prime Minister probably and my President certainly, my Secretary of State absolutely, they thought that if we bomb Milošević for about three days, and demonstrate to him that we are serious, he will roll over and accept our terms”

5. The leader of the Defense Committee in the Norwegian Parliament at the time, Hans Røsjorde admitted that “the desired end-state and the exit strategy when NATO went to war was – to put it mildly – very unclear.”

15. The United States did not inform its allies that it was to conduct a separate air campaign in the middle of NATO’s effort to coerce Milošević to comply with NATO demands.

18. At one briefing in the early stages of OAF, one of Lt. Gen. Short’s subordinates stood up and stated, “It seems to me that what we are doing is randomly bombing military targets with no coherent strategy, sir” – to which Short replied, “You are absolutely right.”

21. The Norwegian representative on NATO’s Military Committee, Lt. Gen. Per Bøthun said that the Military Committee largely felt bypassed from the outset and that events were driven largely by the strategic side at SHAPE, and by the United States.

25. When I asked the Norwegian minister of defense, Eldbjørg Løwer, how she perceived political control regarding the transition from one phase to another, she said, “It was not evident when one moved from one phase to another. It was clear that the dynamics of events once the campaign started made it difficult to distinguish the phases. Norwegian foreign minister Knut Vollebæk confirmed the perception of the defense minister: The transition from one phase to another was not entirely clear – the dynamics of war influenced the process.

26. Gradually the strategy, planning and performance improved, but the initial phase – performing what the strongest military alliance in mankind had threatened to do war a year – was an epic underachievement.

56. In no uncertain terms Shorts provides his vision for the air campaign: “On the first day or the first night of the war, you attack the enemy with incredible speed and incredible violence. Violence that he could never have imagined. …You should use every bit of technology that you have to shock him into inaction until he is paralyzed…. That is how I thought airpower should be used in Serbia.”

78. In his memoirs, General Colin Powell recalls one debate with Madeleine Albright in which she stated, “What’s the point of having this superb military that you are always talking about if you cannot use it?” – at which General Powell thought he would have an aneurysm. He had to explain patiently to Albright that if one wanted to use military force one needed clear political goals and that the military commitment should match those very goals.

89. The end of the Cold war and the subsequent changes on the world stage were to have immediate consequences for NATO. Founded as a defense organization in 1949, and molded by decades of the predictable security environment, it now found itself in a rapidly changing security environment. Perhaps capturing the atmosphere in the Alliance at the time, NATO wrote on its Internet site in 1990. “The breathless pace of change does not stop.” With its raison d’être largely swept away by the fall of the Soviet Union, a key question for NATO and Alliance members was how to deal with the new reality. In the midst of this process of re-orientation, the Yugoslavian crisis emerged.

91-92. Thorvald Stoltenberg claims that it was not entirely true that the United States actually left the handling of the Yugoslav crisis to the Europeans. “We honestly felt that it was a fair deal that the Europeans were left to deal with the Yugoslav issue, but when the US should have left the arena, and left it to us to deal with. But they didn’t. They stayed on the sideline influencing the game, so to speak, and that created problems for the Europeans. In fact, it would have been better if the Americans either joined the negotiations [best solution] or stayed out of it entirely.

98. At a meeting in Paris in early 1994, the French foreign minister, Allain Juppé, argued that either the United States should have contribute ground troops to force a negotiated solution in Bosnia or exert political pressure on the Bosnian Muslims to accept a less favorable than they hoped for.

99. Dividing the parties in Bosnia into “good guys” and “bad guys” was an oversimplified notion that did not fit the complex weave of causes and effects, and those who are not familiar with the situation on the ground should be careful of arguing for air strikes.

100. Christopher Hill pointed out that even though there were human rights dimensions towards the handling of the Balkans, there was a very strong alliance issue there as well, and the United States did not want the Balkans to become a further source of alliance problems.

104. By then President Clinton had authorized a private company to use retired U.S. military personnel to improve and train the Croatian army, and he candidly admits in his memoirs, “I was rooting for the Croatians. So was Helmut Kohl, who knew, as I did, that diplomacy could not succeed until the Serbs sustained some serious losses on the ground.

105. According to Tim Judah, other Western countries mumbled their disapproval but did not act to prevent the offensive. “Unspoken but ever-present was the feeling that if there were no more Serbs in Croatia, then, in future there would be no more problems either.”

107-108. Another factor influencing the approach to the Kosovo crisis was the sense of collective guilt or moral failure after Bosnia. Ivo Daalder argues that the breakup of Yugoslavia was the first post-Cold War test the United States and Europe – and that they all failed miserably. Warren Zimmermann asserted that “the refusal of the Bush administration to commit American power early was our greatest mistake of the entire Yugoslav crisis. It made an unjust outcome inevitable and wasted the opportunity to save over a hundred thousand lives.” He added: Western diplomacy was reduced to a kind of cynical theater, a pretence of useful activity, a way of disgusting lack of will. Diplomacy without force became an unloaded weapon, impotent and ridiculous.”

110. This assumption was flawed. It was a substantial exaggeration of the role of airpower and failed to recognize that a combination of factors contributed to ending the Bosnian war – not airpower alone.

110-117. The following six factors were of particular importance in creating the conditions for airpower to succeed in August-September 1995.

110. The first was the economic embargo of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

111. Gradually the increasing poor Serb living conditions – now significantly deepened by the imposed UN embargo – became a threat to the power base of Slobodan Milošević.

111. In the summer of 1995 when the Krajina Serbs were driven out of the Krajina region, Milošević did not assist them.

111. The fact that Milošević was ready to negotiate on the foundations of the Contact Group peace plan and signaled this to Holbrooke is significant because it indicates that Milošević was ready to negotiate with the United States before NATO air strikes commenced on 30 August.

112. The second major factor was the parties’ war exhaustion.

112. Robert Gelbard says, “I think the Serb forces were exhausted by that time, to a very large degree.

113. The third was the relative strength of the federation forces and their ground offensive.

115. Robert Gelbard simply points out, “I think there has generally been an under-recognition in the West of how much that Croatian (and Bosnian Muslim) ground operation really contributed.

115. The fourth major factor favoring the settlement was the U.S. political and diplomatic offensive by August 1995.

115. Stoltenberg asserts, the decisive factor was that the United States assumed leadership and committed itself to a negotiated strategy to end the war.

116. The fifth major predisposing factor was that Republika Srpska and the relative importance of Bosnia. Evidence suggests that Bosnia was not nearly important to Milošević as Kosovo.

117. The sixth factor was Operation Deliberate Force.

117. Madeleine Albright believed that Bosnia showed that limited force – even airpower alone – could make a decisive impact.

118. With no strategic direction or strategic military goal, General [Sir Rupert] Smith wanted to use force for tactical achievements – breaking the siege of Sarajevo. As he points out, “This was the real use of force, and it had no previous or planned context.”

118. Holbrooke says almost everyone believed that the bombing had been a part of a master plan, “but in fact none of the discussions prior to our mission had we considered the bombing as part of a negotiating strategy.”

119. Comparing the international approach to Kosovo with the lessons from Bosnia, Tim Judah argues: “The fact that the Serbs had sued for peace immediately after the bombs started falling, Bosnia inevitably influenced calculations – or more accurately speculations – about how they would react two and a half years later.”

120. A few weeks into the air campaign over Kosovo, David Owen was interviewed by the BBC and asked to comment on the lack of progress in the initial phase of the air campaign; Lord Owen replied: “I mean, the real problem is that too many of our world leaders think that Dayton on Bosnia was a result of NATO air strikes. That is complete nonsense. If you can’t get them to rethink that particular issue, they are going to continue making mistakes.… Their bluff was called by Milošević. That’s what happened.”

123. It was a big mistake to permanently transfer the crisis management responsibility to NATO in the spring of 1998 – Gen. Klaus Naumann.

125. According to Misha Glenny, the killings by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) started on Monday, 22 April 1996, when three Serbs in a café in Dečani in Western Kosovo were killed by the KLA. Within an hour, three other attacks in Kosovo left two additional Serbs dead. The attacks came a few months after the Dayton signing, indicating that Rugova’s nonviolent strategy had not worked and that violence was the only thing that would make the international community listen.

126. In Priština in 23 February 1998, [Robert S.] Gelbard publicly declared that the violence in Kosovo was extremely dangerous and denounced the violence of by the Serb police. He also took a forceful stand against the KLA: “We condemn very strongly the terrorist actions in Kosovo. The UÇK (KLA) is, without any question a terrorist group.

127. Christopher Hill said the comment by Gelbard was not well thought through because –even though it was not intended – it probably created the notion in Belgrade that there was a green light for Milošević to deal with the KLA.

128-129. The KLA had gained a martyr, and the deaths of the Jashari family left Kosovo reeling.

129. Some were only fighting for Kosovo, while other KLA commanders made no secret that their ambition was to carve out a Greater Albania. In a conversation with Richard Holbrook a KLA commander noted, “This is the army which is liberating people,” adding, “our job is to free the whole of Kosovo, the Albanians in Macedonia and Montenegro too.”

131. About Madeleine Albright: It should be noted that her conclusion was largely the same as her conclusion after Bosnia – it all came down to “the only language Milošević understood,” the threat or use of force. (…) Ivo Daalder: Albright had been “perhaps the most forceful advocate for strong forceful opposition to the kind of politics Milošević conducted, in Croatia, then in Bosnia, and by February 1998, inside Kosovo…. She has a particular knack for putting this in highly rhetorical and forceful language.

133. By inviting Vojislav Šešelj into the government, Milošević sent a signal to the Western leaders: You might not like me, but you might want to consider the alternative.

133-134. Sandy Berger: “You can’t just talk about bombing in the middle of Europe. What targets would you want to hit? What do you do the day after? It is irresponsible to keep making threatening statements outside of some coherent plan. The way you people at the State Department talk about bombing, you sound like lunatics.”

135. The United States no longer wanted to threaten a unilateral endeavor. NATO had become the principal instrument for exerting military pressure and influence in the region.

135. Many probably felt like the Norwegian minister of defense [Eldbjørg Løwer], who described as “very difficult” the criticism from domestic political opposition and parts of the general public for not having a UN Security Council resolution before bombing.

137. It should be noted that even though Gen. Wesley Clark says in his memoirs that airpower did not guarantee a result; the notion that the threat of air strikes ultimately could mean escalating the conflict to a ground campaign came only after being pushed hard by General Joseph Ralston. But the impression Clark conveyed in Washington – particularly at the State Department and the National Security Council – was that airpower was likely to provide the political leverage sought to handle the issue of Kosovo.

138. When, by March 1999, and any more threats later. There was still no compromise, there was also no way back – and, short of a humiliating climb down, force had to be used. NATO had threatened itself into a corner.

139. Many countries in NATO did not like that but felt obligated to go along out of solidarity and consideration of realpolitik.

139. That was one of the first lessons Naumann learned in this conflict – never threaten something you cannot execute it in the next day or so.

140. The notion of hitting the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Interior in Belgrade – with subsequent threats to escalate dramatically – was not merely overly simplistic. It significantly weakened the very credibility needed to coerce Milošević.

142. [June 1998] Holbrooke – using a conference as a cover – met the international spokesman of the KLA, Bardhyl Mahmuti, in Switzerland. During the meeting, according to Mahmuti, Hoolbrooke said that the United States would force Milošević to accept constitutional changes that would provide independence for Kosovo within a time frame of three to five years.

142. Knut Vollebæk, the Norwegian foreign minister and chairman of the OSCE, said he had the impression that signals like this were provided to the Kosovars by “an influential nation.” When asked which nation he was talking about, he declined to answer, but with a barely noticeable grin he stated that “it was pretty obvious who is was.”

143. When the U.S. commanders Admiral Ellis and Lt. Gen. Short briefed General Clark on the U.S. developed plan in June, according to Short, Clark said, “Mike, this is a great effort, and I appreciate that all that you and your people have done. I am concerned that, if we continue to plan in NATO channels, we will have problems with operational security, and the essence of our planning will end up in Paris or Belgrade newspapers. So I am going to take this planning effort and put it into U.S. channels only.”

144. According to BBC2, during their summer offensive, the KLA killed some eighty policemen and sixty civilians.

144. Without a humanitarian reason, there was no legal basis for employing British forces.

145. As Tim Judah metaphorically writes: “Despite having inflicted undoubted reverses on the KLA, they had in fact tumbled, like a lumbering giant, into a vast trap.”

146. Even as the situation on the ground was deteriorating, with civilians suffering and disaster impending, could the international community use force against a sovereign country that had not attacked them in an effort to try and end the civilian suffering?

147. By the end of summer 1998, the United States had sent clear signals of support to the KLA – further distancing itself from Belgrade and Milošević.

150. According to Milo Đukanović, Milošević stated at the meeting: “So what? First they bomb, and then peace resumes. They bomb for about 5-7 days, and then the international community mobilizes. NATO is forced to stop their actions, and we become moral winners.

154. United Nations Security Council Resolution 1203, although concerned about the humanitarian situation in Kosovo, welcomed the air verification mission and the KVM, but insisted “that the Kosovo Albanian leadership condemn all terrorist actions, demands that such actions cease immediately and emphasizes that all elements in the Kosovo Albanian community should pursue their goals by peaceful means only.”

156. The October agreement had at least one significant flaw, that it put pressure only on Belgrade – the KLA was never asked to sign on to the cease-fire.

156. Milošević believed he had been double-crossed by Holbrooke and NATO. This fortified his belief that he had to deal with the KLA on his own and put into effect a plan both to deal with the KLA and to change the ethnic balance in Kosovo.

156. Knut Vollebæk admitted that he was never informed about the content of Holbrooke’s October agreement, despite bringing this issue up with the Americans several times.

157. After the war a NATO military official admitted, “We always said NATO would never serve as the KLA’s air force, but they [KLA] ended up serving as our surrogate army.”

158. Kåre Eltervåg, who was the political adviser to the head of KVM, William Walker, says he was surprised by how great nations (particularly the United States and the United Kingdom) operated as parties in the conflict under the OSCE’s neutral umbrella. Not only did they provide maps to the KLA, but as the KVM left, “some nations left behind communications equipment that the KLA later used to provide NATO with map references, assisting bombing missions and battle-damage assessment.”

158. The deputy head of mission/chief of staff for the Kosovo Verification Mission, Maj. Gen. Bjørn Nygård, shared Eltervåg’s perception. Eltervåg personally witnessed this communication from Macedonia after the war had started, and as he later reflected, “It was like some of the powerful nations had foreseen what was to come, and decided that this was one of the few opportunities to get intelligence information out of Kosovo when the war finally started. For all practical purposes, this activity largely reduced the integrity of the OSCE which was needed in order to play a significant role as an international body in Kosovo after the war.”

158. Eltervåg’s perception was that the KLA strategy was to provoke the Serbs in order to trigger forcible retaliation, which in turn would provoke the international community and lead to NATO involvement. Maj. Gen. Nygård later stated that he had exactly the same perception. This view was later confirmed by Remi, who on camera did not conceal the KLA’s ultimate goal: “We did not have adequate firepower for larger operations, but we could provoke the Serbs by using snipers. Our intention was to get NATO to intervene as fast as possible.”

159. Between the October agreement and Christmas, a UN report stated that some 150 civilian Serbs had been kidnapped, and even Albanian LDK activists were targeted by the KLA. Interestingly, Nygård points out that the international community seemed to have demonized the Serbs as the source of the problems for so long that anything the KLA did in this period was perceived as more or less legitimate resistance by the weaker party. According to him, within the KVM in this period, the French and German perception of the situation was significantly more objective than that of the United States and Britain.

160. In November 1998, another incident contributed to Milošević’s calculations. French officials said that one of their military officers, Maj. Pierre Bunel, had passed secret NATO war plans to Milošević during the October cease-fire in Kosovo. The leaks reportedly included details of which areas NATO planned to bomb if the crisis led to air strikes. The French major was later found guilty of the charges and sentenced to jail for two years, but he claimed he had been acting under the orders or French intelligence services.

163. Kåre Eltervåg personally believed the Serbs were responsible – partly because of the events taking place and partly due to the fact that he had experienced the KLA as fairly honest when it came to admitting their own losses. However, he added that the quick response from William Walker felt strange, and after he had received go-ahead from Washington to stage a press conference even though the situation had not been fully investigated. Maj. Gen. Bjørn Nygård attended Walker’s press conference that day and said later that although he certainly regarded it as most likely that the Serbs were responsible for the massacre, he was also well aware that the KLA was fully capable of staging such an event.

163-164. Helena Ranta believes nothing indicates that the twenty-three men in that infamous ditch had been laid there later; they had not been killed from a long distance, and the bullets found in the bodies had come from a small number of weapons – all indicating that a massacre had taken place.

164. Albright was the leading advocate of what became the Rambouillet strategy. Commenting on the mood in Washington after Račak, Christopher Hill says Račak had become something of a Srebrenica in miniature: I should say that it became hysterical, but the mood turned very anti-Serb immediately. No one asked whether the Serbs had a point, or if we really did know what had happened at Račak. With Walker walking around among the dead bodies, it completely changed my carefully developed peace plan which sought to provide something to all parties involved – suddenly the agreement became very one-sided against the Serbs.”

166. The allies feared that the threat tied to a U.S. ultimatum would be directed solely against Belgrade, and thus leave the area once again to the KLA.

168. An interesting observation came from a British Foreign Office official should be noted. Just before the Rambouillet conference started, the British official pointed out the difference between Dayton and Rambouillet: all parties in the Bosnian conflict had been exhausted after fighting for years and had already turned down three peace plans, whereas Rambouillet was an attempt to impose an agreement before the fighting had really commenced.

169-170. According to General Clark himself, he pointed out that in the short run, air strikes could not prevent Serb forces from attacking civilians but recommended to Secretary Albright that NATO respond in order not to lose credibility.

171. Christopher Hill says the problem was that the Serbs would not engage the question at all, that Milošević wanted to avoid the military element because he felt that the true intention was to eliminate him – or detach Kosovo from Serbia. As we saw in chapter 7, Milošević had every reason to be concerned.

171. By now, according to an American official, “the price of saving Rambouillet was to tie ourselves more and more closely to the Albanians.”

175. Asked whether – on the eve of war – there was any focus on what would happen in Kosovo after the most powerful military alliance in the world had won the war, as it presumably would, the chief of staff at SHAPE, Gen. Dieter Stöckmann said: “From the outset, we were never given a long-term vision for an intended end-state within the Balkans and what the status of Kosovo should be once the war was over. It was obviously not thought through politically when the war started.”

176. The US (and subsequently NATO) response to the Kosovo crisis was shaped significantly more by the history preceding the crisis than the actual events taking place in Kosovo.

176. Pushed into crisis management by, particularly, the State Department and the National Security Council, NATO started issuing threats it was in no political position to fulfill.

176. While Milošević and the FRY leadership must bear the brunt of the responsibility for the emerging crisis, the KLA must shoulder responsibility for cynically choosing a strategy it knew would cause suffering to the vast majority of the Kosovo Albanians.

177, As one Western diplomat reportedly acknowledged at the time, “We don’t have leverage on the KLA. It is a missing element in our over-all strategy.”

178. When I later asked James Dobbins, the special envoy to Bosnia and Kosovo about the issue of using airpower in OAF, he said the strategy was quite clear: “We’ll bomb them a little bit, if that doesn’t work, we’ll bomb them a little bit more, and if that doesn’t work, we’ll bomb them a little bit more, and if that doesn’t work – ultimately – we have to consider invading. I don’t see anything that lacks in clarity in that strategy.”

178. Arguably, Dobbin’s oversimplified perception of airpower represents that of many advocates of the limited use of airpower. In a sense, on the eve of OAF, the advocates of limited force and the use of airpower in the Clinton administration had come full circle. Their advocacy of airpower in Bosnia was not based on a comprehensive strategy to solve this complex and unique conflict but rather on an oversimplified belief that airpower would somehow influence the Serbs to back off and thereby restore peace in the Balkans.

179. It seems fair that when NATO decided to start an air campaign, many nations felt obliged to join ranks and rally behind the decisions made in Washington and the bigger European nations.

179-180. On numerous occasions General Clark advised politicians and diplomats that airpower was sufficient to coerce Milošević.

180. The Norwegian representative on NATO’s Military Committee, Lt. Gen. Per Bøthun said that the Military Committee largely felt bypassed from the outset and that events were driven largely by the strategic side at SHAPE, and by the United States.

180. Within the U.S channels, General Ralston said, Clark’s advice was largely more appreciated in the State Department than in the Department of Defense.

182. If indeed Milošević was a political opportunist without a long-term strategy and whose overall concern was to stay in power, would it not be logical to deduce that a broader diplomatic spectrum of costs and benefits could influence his behavior? Why conclude then that only military (airpower) mattered?

182. Milošević was more than willing to end the Bosnian war when Holbrooke suggested negotiations in August 1995, because indirectly it threatened his domestic power base in Serbia.

183-184. Furthermore, the simplified perspective that Milošević was the only source of the problem and that he only responded to the use of force gives rise to another significant nuance: How did the KLA fit into this picture, and how could it have influenced the coecive diplomacy in Kosovo?

184. The notion that Milošević was the source of the problem seemingly ran too deep, and the influence of the United States was too strong.

184. Tim Judah: “At the heart of the matter was [instead] a fundamental struggle between two peoples for control of the same piece of land. In our times, however, human rights have become an influential factor in shaping international politics.[;] … we can see how the question of human rights became another weapon on the arsenal of the Kosovars.”

185. Maj. Gen Bjørn Nygård: Even though the conflict from a Western point of view largely was a humanitarian issue, the conflict developed into a classic armed conflict over territory and political and economic power.

185. Ibrahim Rugova: “Unfortunately, there were many crimes committed against the Serbs.” This answer may add some force to Gordeman’s statement that instead of an explicit “good” or a “bad” side, ethnic wars instead have a “strong” side and a “weak” side, that “it is a grim reality in ethnic conflict that the stronger side often commits atrocities against the weak side.”

185. As General Naumann said after the war, “I think we had a chance to prevent war in the fall of 1998. Milošević honored the October agreement, but the KLA exploited the withdrawal of FRY forces and took some very provocative steps. They started the conflict then, but NATO had no instrument to influence them. In fact, the failure by NATO to influence the KLA at the time was the biggest deficiency of the diplomatic effort. We had a chance to find a negotiated solution, but we missed it.”

185. Christopher Hill felt that the KLA strategy was largely successful. “I mean, NATO ended up in Kosovo, so I would call the KLA strategy a success.”